It’s December, and here in LA, we are in full swing of the season- holiday music jingles across the airwaves, I’m offered tiny mugs of cider and cookies at every turn (church, the shopping mall, Whole Foods), red, green and tinsel everything, and I’m feeling cozy, oddly romantic (I’m single), emotional (abnormal for me), and like I need to shop. Every. single. day. I’m wearing sparkly earrings, looking forward to the next Christmas party (one about every 48 hours), and planning a batch of spicy-sweet popcorn brittle, and browsing recipes for paleo eggnog. I’m watching Christmas movies, buying gifts for family (and let’s be real, me), and dreading the post-holiday abyss that is January while sipping my Starbucks peppermint mocha. It feels wonderfully chaotic, and also terribly and yet appealingly commercial. I’m overwhelmed, joy-filled, and stuffed. Explanation? It’s my first Christmas season in America in half a decade.
The problem is, I alternate between festive, sparkly bliss among the rows of candied panettone and nut brittle at Trader Joe’s, and fatigue and disgust waiting in a holiday-induced onslaught of weekend traffic. I love this time of year- and yet, it reminds me of some of the values I’m finding it difficult to adapt to again, after a few years overseas: the overworking, overspending, and overeating that seem so central to American culture. I’m loving the holiday cheer, and yet longing to return to this very same week last year: when I was in on a mission trip outreach in Mozambique, sleeping outside in a broken tent, scraping peanut butter out of a jar for dinner, sweaty, dirty, tired, and really, really happy. Our team celebrated Christmas in our own way: we sang “silent night” rumbling across the terrain in an open truck bed, made cake from a box mix at the foreign grocery store, and talked about our families. That was the holiday season, Mozambiqui-style. And it was wonderful.
It sounds silly, but sometimes the more we have, the sicker or more stressed we feel. It’s the same reason the idea of the “simple life” on an avocado farm begins to sound appealing to 9 to 5’ers eking out a living in the city. Simplicity, escape, minimalism are actually becoming cultural commodities. And I can see why- adjusting to living in LA after years of a simpler lifestyle hasn’t been easy. Let me make this very important disclaimer: the locals I knew and loved in Africa did not live such idyllic existences. Living in a developing country as a westerner does not mean you have a realistic perspective of how people actually live, considering financial stress is a non-issue for an American (rent was less than $200 a month in Morocco, to give you an idea). But nonetheless, I had less, ate less, spent less, and worked less when living overseas. Yes, there were certainly challenges (parasites homesickness, culture shock, language fatigue), but there were also innumerable joys of living simply.
There’s a struggle in my soul between the irresistible, and let’s be honest, totally magical pull of Christmas in America, and the memory of a December in Africa with much less stuff, but much more joy. Given this, I can do one of two things: a) blame my confusion on the commercial/capitalistic values of America, and plan my next trip to Africa or, b) learn “the secret of living in every situation”:.
…I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.*
The apostle Paul wrote this, who, if you don’t know, was basically the all-time greatest missionary of the Christian faith. Paul worked and traveled constantly, and underwent some pretty heavy circumstances (time in jail, beatings, and a shipwreck, among other things) for the sake of what he believed. And Paul learned to be happy- when he was feasting with the wealthy, or starving in jail. His contentment was absolutely not contingent on his circumstances. His was an inner, unchanging peace, dependent on his faith in Jesus.
And so, in light of Christmas, culture shock, and commercialism, I’m standing on this: not to judge the shopping mall, or the bush-bush. To be overjoyed at the birth of Jesus, and to celebrate well with my friends and my family. To go ahead and drink my peppermint mocha, but also not forget to think about everyone else in the world (to give to the refugee crisis, for example). Christmas in California is beautiful in all it’s loud, chaotic, sugar-fueled frenzy. And Christmas in Africa is blissful in it’s simplicity and tradition. The Bible says “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him.”** And isn’t Christmas about Him, anyway?